Blending ancient craft traditions with modern technology may seem paradoxical, but sometimes it’s the key to keeping those traditions alive. A perfect example is the Boruca indigenous community in the Southern Zone, which has done an impressive job of not only reviving traditional crafts but also adapting them to a modern marketplace.
For almost a decade, U.S. citizen Susie Atkinson has been buying carved balsa-wood masks and woven textiles from the Boruca community to sell at a small markup to guests in her Pacific Edge Mountain Retreat in the hills above DominicalitoBeach, on the southern Pacific coast. Over the years, she developed a relationship with the La Flor cooperative, based in Térraba, near the Southern Zone city of Buenos Aires. As well as selling the artisans’ wares, she has provided valuable marketing feedback, encouraging them to make new products with their handcrafted materials.
“Instead of the traditional, small, drawstring bolsas (bags) they were making, I suggested they make larger, more practical purses, with secure zipper closings and shoulder straps,” Atkinson said.
The new styles sell well, but because the handwoven Boruca fabric is so thick, it’s difficult for the artisans to sew seams and zippers by hand, Atkinson explained.
Enter modern technology. On its informative Web site, www.borucacr.org, created and managed pro bono by Lara Mueller of Finca Ipe in nearby Barú, the cooperative published a wish list that included an industrial sewing machine to help solve its stitching problems.
Shortly after reading that wish list, Atkinson found out her upholsterer in the Southern Zone crossroads city of San Isidro de El General was leaving the country and selling his Juki industrial sewing machine. Reputedly the Cadillac of sewing machines, it weighs in at 100 pounds and sits atop a hefty three-by four- foot table with a built-in motor. Atkinson bought it for $1,100, drove it over the mountains and then made this proposition to the La Flor co-op: “Give me six of your best masks and bags, and I’ll raffle them off to pay for half the sewing machine.”
To add interest to the raffle, held at the annual Dominical Christmas Crafts Fair Nov. 30, Atkinson arranged for co-op members to stage a demonstration of spinning, dying and weaving at the fair.
Atkinson spent an anxious day before the fair, awaiting the artisans. By nightfall there was no sign of them. She finally got hold of Marina Lázaros, one of the co-op leaders, by telephone. Lázaros explained that their driver had been in a serious car accident, plus a local elder had just died and the community was grieving. Nonetheless, she promised the group would arrive in time for the 8 a.m. opening of the fair the next day.
The weather gods, however, were not kind. Late that night, the heavens opened and the heaviest rain of the year – nine inches in 24 hours – began to fall. Up and down the coast, roads were blocked by landslides, tree falls and washouts, as the rain continued all day.
Atkinson arrived early at the Roca Verde hotel in Dominical, where the fair was being held, still hopeful that somehow her artisans would make it through the deluge from their remote village. At 7:30 they did arrive, thoroughly drenched and slightly depleted.
Only two made it: Lázaros and her son, José González, a mask maker, along with their recovered truck driver.
The day was saved. Lázaros was the star of the craft fair, attracting observers as she expertly spun, dyed and wove.
“I think when people see how much work goes into growing, spinning, dying and weaving this material, they appreciate it so much more than when they just see our bags for sale in a store,” she said.
Spurred by her skillful handiwork and emcee Richard Abraham’s banter with fairgoers, raffle ticket sales – $10 for a chance on a mask, $3 for a woven purse – were brisk, with draws every half hour.
With the wet weather discouraging or stranding many area residents in their homes, fair attendance was lower than expected. But the raffle still brought in close to $700, giving this story a happy ending: The Boruca have a new sewing machine and the satisfaction of contributing more than half its cost, and Atkinson is content knowing her efforts have made a material difference to these skilled textile makers and their community.